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Sisyphus, and the point of video games

Aubrey Anable explains the most-important art form of the 21st century.

So, you’ve stopped the final zombie with a perfect kill shot to the head. Congratulations. You’ve won the battle. But your high score doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve won the war.

Aubrey Anable was at the University of Rochester’s Rush Rhees Library on Thursday to, as she puts it, “defend video games from cultural commentators.” In other words, those who dare to call “Angry Birds” a vapid waste of your time.

Video games, she insists, are the most-important new art form of the 21st century.

An assistant professor of film studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, Anable’s contribution to what she calls “an emerging scholarship in the field of game studies” is her book, Playing With Feelings: Video Games and Affect.

Affect. In this case, the word means the experiences of feeling and emotion. For Anable, a guest speaker of UR’s Neilly Series Lectures, video games serve the same purpose as the poet Virgil in Dante’s The Divine Comedy: They lead us through today’s complex digital landscape.

Anable, who received her PhD in Visual and Cultural Studies from the University of Rochester, reaches back to the 1930s, and the impact the relative new art form, cinema, had on the public. How those on-screen images spoke to audiences about the radical, new social emotions being generated by their rapidly evolving world. Affects. And how today, video games are now in that same role, a “ubiquitous part of our digital environment.”

“Video games,” she says, “have inherited and significantly revised the role of cinema.”

Anable recalls the early computer scientist Alan Turing’s question: “Can machines think?” And the follow-up question from the father of affect theory, Silvan Tomkins: “Can machines feel?” Questions that cannot be answered, Anable says, from the perspective of “the simplistic idea that computers work like human brains.”

Human brains indulge in risk taking. They revel in achievement. Affects are biologically-based categories arranged by Tomkins, such as interest-excitement. And even shame-humiliation. Useful concepts. Shame, Anable says, helps to uphold social norms.

She traces the origin of video games to Cold War computer labs, where 1958’s “Tennis For Two” and 1962’s “Spacewar!” taught us how to feel about thermonuclear war. The mechanics of the computers of that day were beyond the reach of the average person – the hardware on these gadgets filled a room. So these games were intended to be ambassadors, created to make this intimidating technology “friendly and accessible,” Anable says.

The circuits we’ve traveled since “Tennis For Two” does have contemporary applications. For Anable, video games help make “techno-cultural conditions accessible.” They are “giving expression to how our lives are lived in the digital age.” They are extensions of email, social media and creating a word document, “ordinary activities imbued with the possibility of play.”

“Those interactions,” she says, “are necessary to how we live our lives already.”

Interactions that are less destructive than our often mean-spirited social media because, “The stakes are lower.”

Aubrey admits she’s less interested in big-budget, super-realistic, immersive games such as “Call of Duty.” She finds “casual mobile games” as a more-useful gateway into our digital era. Those include the various solitaire games, Suduko, Extreme Road Trip. Games played in short bursts.

“Video games are not an escape,” she argues, “but pull us into the world.”

Useful applications can be found at some level in even the most seemingly lightweight of escapist video entertainments. Anable cites “Plants vs. Zombies” as your gardening skills pitted against The Undead. And the zaniness of “Frogger” reflecting today’s age of “too many things coming at once.” More to her point, video games are also portals into pornography, art or learning skills such as math. “The video game,” Anable says, “is not just about one thing.”

But most importantly, Anable argues, just as cinema in the 1930s was a societal-teaching tool, video games are as well today. They are teaching us the rhythm of digital labor.

She talks of ergonomic shifts, people juggling multiple tasks simultaneously, creating an easy flow, a rhythm between work and play. With phone in hand, we are now constantly connected to work. We are now in an age where our minds are slipping from one activity to the next. In this digital age, it is putting to work our short attention spans.

At this point, cultural commentators will step in and ask: Is this an improvement over a sustained focus?

Going to her laptop computer, Anable summons a video game and projects it on a screen for her audience in the Hawkins-Carlson Room at Rush Rhees Library. The game is “Let’s Play Ancient Greek Punishment,” with amusingly primitive graphics by today’s standards. By manipulating a couple of keys, the player becomes Sisyphus of Greek legend pushing a boulder up a hill. Inevitably, the boulder rolls back downhill, and the player must start over. “There is no way to successfully complete the task,” Anable says. Your only choice is to give up and close the browser.

This is where the high score does not win the war. We have reached a key affect of video games, she says. An affect we must tolerate and dwell in. An affect that is a necessary step to success. An affect that even our system of capitalism can accommodate in tremendous amounts, she says, so long as the possibility of success exists.

That affect?

“All video games,” Anable says, “are about failure.”

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The Critical Mass

I read The Sunday New York Times, so you don’t have to: Sept. 12

When I first heard the sound early this morning, I thought someone had tossed a dead pig on the stoop. But it was the delivery of the Sunday Times, particularly bulky this morning, with three separate Arts & Leisure sections. These honor “The New Season,” including one entire section devoted to film. It’s simply too much to consume on one Sunday morning and afternoon. So I’ll set those aside, and report on anything noteworthy later this week. But let’s read the rest of it, while listening to the elegant Charlie Haden Quartet.

1, Saturday’s 9th anniversary observance of 9/11 included Barack Obama saying “We are not at war and never will be at war with Islam.” With the rise of anti-Muslim sentiments spurred on by conservatives objecting to the construction of a community center and mosque two blocks from ground zero, and with Koran-burning hooligan pastors in town, “For the first time,” The Times writes, “the anniversary of the worst attack on American soil and the deadliest disaster in New York City history served almost as a political backdrop.”

2, According to The Times, “Even as more American troops flow into the country, Afghanistan is more dangerous than it has ever been during this war, with security deteriorating in recent months, according to international organizations and humanitarian groups.”

3, Last December, as House Democrats prepared to vote on the financial regulatory bill, minority leader John Boehner called 100 lobbyists to Washington to discuss what could be done to stop the bill. “We need you to get out there and speak up against this,” The Times alleges Boehner as saying. None of this is surprising – Boehner is not known for having ever summoned 100 of his constituents to Washington. “He maintains especially tight ties with a circle of lobbyists and former aids representing some of the nation’s biggest businesses,” The Times reports, and is especially fond of accepting expensive golf junkets. According to one lobbyist, the story says Boehner agreed to “combating fee increases for the oil industry, fighting a proposed cap on debit card fees, protecting tax breaks for hedge fund executives and opposing a cap on greenhouse gas emissions.” That’s who your next majority leader will be if the Republicans gain control of the House of Representatives in November.

4, This summer, two Chinese scientists piloted a submarine the size of a small pickup truck two miles down to the bottom of the South China Sea, symbolically planting a Chinese flag there amid an estimated trillions of dollars worth of mineral nodules and, The Times notes, “undersea cables carrying diplomatic communications, lost nuclear arms, sunken submarines and hundreds of warheads left over from missile tests.” The submersible now allows China to go as deep as 7,000 meters, or 4.35 miles. Japan his built one that will descend to 6,500 meters while “Russia, France and the United States lag further behind in the game of going deep.”

5, Columnist Frank Rich cites one of America’s most-unnerving statistics as he calls on Barack Obama to campaign with the same forcefulness that he displayed in his run for the presidency: “He must join the many who are talking about why the top 1 percent of American earners now take home nearly a quarter of America’s income – perhaps the single most revealing indicator of how three decades of greed and free-market absolutism have eviscerated America’s fundamental ideals of fairness.”

6, In the Magazine, a Sub Pop Records exec mentions how the label has toyed with the idea of selling stuff associated with a new release – a shirt, or maybe a key chain – and tossing in the music for free. The band Of Montreal tried this with its 2008 album Skeletal Lamping, marketing it as a “multi-object format: aside from traditional packaging, you could buy a set of wall decals or a lamp and have the digital download of the music thrown in.” The story quotes Of Montreal frontman Kevin Barnes, who may not have been entirely serious, but I hope so: “We hope this idea catches on and, in the future, square CD packaging will be abandoned forever and only interesting art objects will fill record stores. We envision a time when you’ll be walking around your local record shop and be like, ‘What’s the new Radiohead album again? Oh yeah, a Bonsai tree in the shape of a deformed goat, I see it over there.’ ”

7, In a  headline, the Magazine also asks,”What Does It Mean That the Most Popular Cultural Depictions of America’s Current Wars Happen to Be Video Games?” As Army platoon leader and Afghanistan vet Andrew Exum says, “There’s something annoying that most of America experiences the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which are actually taking place, through a video game.”

8, In the Travel section, writer Matt Gross uses Tangier to open his every-few-months series of stories on getting lost. He explains, “I’ve lately been wondering, how does it feel to truly not know where you are? Are the guidebooks, GPS devices and Internet forums pointing us in the wrong direction? In our efforts to figure out where we’re going, have we lost something more important?”

9, The day’s most thought-provoking character can be found beneath the headline “For Froggy, One Last Story.” It tells of a writer who went by the name F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre, who’d had a few books published, as well as stories in magazines, but apparently was better known on the sci-fi Internet circuit. On June 25, MacIntyre set fire to his Brooklyn apartment, which went up easily considering it was nothing more than  a nest of newspapers, science fiction books, rejection letters from publishers and correspondence from  people throughout the sci-fi world.  The fire also consumed the 59-year-old MacIntyre, who had been on an increasingly downward spiral after years of living a life in which details seemed to be made up and changed as easily as MacIntyre changed his socks. “What was his real name?” mused a fellow Brooklyn writer, Andrew Porter, after the fiery suicide. “Where was he born? No one knows. Froggy was weird, and his death is just as weird.” On his web site, MacIntyre had written of his hoarding, “I collect the fragments of time that other people throw away, and I put these to good use.” MacIntyre also wrote on his site,  “Immortality is for suckers.  If even a few of my words outlive me by even one hour, then I have cheated death.”

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